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From The Monist, Vol. LXVI, No. 3, July 1983, 367-371.


Whitehead, Categories, and the Completion of the Copernican Revolution

Donald W.  Sherburne


1. Introduction

Philosophy is, and has been, many things to many people, and that is fine.  Some of those persons who do, or have done, philosophy have engaged in the business of creating categoreal schemes.  Were one to ask why these persons set about to construct categoreal schemes, the answer would have to be complex—the conscious motivations, purposes, and goals of system-builders are undoubtedly various.  And that is fine.  So when I suggest, as I am about to, an account of what it is that categoreal schemes are really trying to do, it must be understood that I do not intend my account to be dogmatically a priori.  I have simply thought about some of the great systematizers and the categoreal schemes they have concocted, have admittedly done this reflecting from the perspective of Whitehead’s process metaphy-sics, and have arrived at certain conclusions about what might be viewed as a diagnostic tool for understanding many of the interesting and historically important categoreal schemes.

What then do I see as the fundamental thrust of philosophical system-building?  I suggest, looking back over the history of philosophy and looking at our present-day debates about what philosophy should be, that it is interesting and fruitful to consider a categoreal scheme as an attempt to formulate a set of concepts that enables us to do justice to man as a part of nature.  The great gap is always between the concepts that reflect the scientific understanding of nature in a given era and that same era’s existential experience of the structures presupposed by human being.  The history of thought is full of documents that shed much light on our lived experience (one thinks of Augustine and Pascal as well as Heidegger and Sartre to say nothing of the poets, whose names are legion) as well as documents articulating our growing scientific grasp of nature (Galileo and Newton come to mind as well as Planck and Einstein).  The problem is to synthesize the two perspectives, and nine times out of ten the great philosophical system-builders who develop categoreal schemes are most fruitfully approached, I believe, if they are understood as searchers for the bridge which, for their times, will span, link, bring together these two domains.  Democritus and Hobbes are good examples of interesting and fine thinkers who fall short because their categoreal schemes failed to do justice to man; Heidegger and Sartre are good examples of interesting and fine thinkers who fall short because their categoreal schemes, while doing justice to man, failed to do justice to man as a part of nature.  Democritus gave up on the possibility of a real synthesis and focused, categoreally speaking, on the side of science; Sartre gave up on the possibility of a real synthesis and focused, categoreally speaking, on the side of the structures of human being.

Given this analysis, who are my categoreal heroes?  Clearly Aristotle has to be high on the list.  As I shall argue in a bit more detail shortly, Aristotle had to create his own “Copernican Revolution” of sorts at the same time that he developed a set of philosophical categories that did justice to man as a part of that new Aristotelian vision of nature.  Aristotle’s achievement serves as the norm by which all other efforts are judged.  Hegel is high on the list, but not at the top because that “nature” in which he locates man is a bit of a fudge—it is already in itself the peculiarly human “nature” of human history, not the nature of Galileo and Newton.  Kant, in contrast, had the real nature in view but failed to reach it because he insisted on trying to do justice to nature as a part of man, rather than to man as a part of nature.

For modern philosophers it is Descartes, the “Father of Modern Philosophy,” who is the challenge to be overcome.  Descartes certainly wanted to do justice to man (hence mental substance) and he, unlike Hegel, was clearly determined to do justice to the nature of the scientists, the nature of Copernicus and Galileo (hence physical substance).  But Descartes failed, and became the classic example of categoreal incoherence, precisely because he could give no coherent account of the relationship between his two types of substance, which is simply to say that he could not give an account of man as a part of nature.  It is this observation which leads us to Whitehead and which provides the context for understanding the opening sentence of his magnum opus, Process and Reality—“These lectures are based upon a recurrence to that phase of philosophic thought which began with Descartes and ended with Hume.”1  What this sentence means is that in Whitehead’s view Descartes totally misdirected subsequent philosophy.  Not only did he fail to exhibit man as a part of nature, his very failure, his incoherence, generated the concepts and problems which mesmerized subsequent thinkers; that is, by isolating mind from nature he set the problem of trying to explain how mind can know that nature from which it is excluded. Whitehead’s phrase, “and ended with Hume,” is his way of saying that Hume showed the inherent impossibility of the task generated by Descartes’ hopeless bifurcation—Richard Rorty, in his important book Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature, is really, although in a most elegant, learned, and contemporary way, just flogging the same old Cartesian horse that Whitehead, in 1929, assumed to be already definitely deceased, and with it all the issues and problems generated by the Cartesian conceptual scheme.

A few more comments about Rorty’s book will be helpful, as my understanding of what philosophy is, and consequently of what builders of categoreal schemes are up to, would seem to be quite different from his understanding of these matters.  Rorty would like to think of philosophy as a discipline that acquired its character as an autonomous field of inquiry in the seventeenth century.  In recent years the collective genius of Reichenbach, Quine, Sellars, Kuhn, et al. (to cite a few of the more prominent among those eminences who dwell on Rorty’s version of Mount Olympus) has shown that philosophy, i.e., the collection of assumptions and issues that coalesced in the wake of Descartes into an autonomous discipline, rests upon a mistake, rests upon misguided assumptions which have now been repudiated once and for all.  Consequently, in Rorty’s view, philosophy has been pretty much destroyed as a discipline and there is not a great deal left for philosophers to do except, perhaps, to engage, à la Heidegger and Sartre, in the quasipoetical business of edification.

One response to the Rorty thesis is to deny that philosophy ever really became an autonomous discipline with its own peculiar issues and methods.  Alasdair Maclntyre has vigorously argued this line of criticism in an article titled “Philosophy, the ‘Other’ Disciplines, and Their Histories: A Rejoinder to Richard Rorty” (Soundings: An Interdisciplinary Journal, vol. LXV, no. 2, [Summer, 1982]).  My comments above about categoreal schemes likewise imply that it is very misleading to view philosophy as an autonomous discipline—philosophy is always (1) taking insights from the life sciences and literature with the goal of being able to do justice to man and (2) taking insights from the hard sciences with the aim of understanding that nature of which man, adequately understood, must be exhibited as properly a part.  And none of the sciences sits still very long; philosophy is always, to paraphrase some of Whitehead’s titles, an ongoing adventure of ideas that forms a categoreal synthesis which is constantly in the making.2  Categoreal schemes are the history of these adventures, and as the data from the life and the hard sciences become more refined, so do the categoreal schemes based on them.  I do not see philosophy as being at the end of its road; to the contrary, as I hope this article will suggest, philosophy, in my view, is poised for a major advance, is poised to complete the Copernican Revolution, and Whitehead has shown us the direction to go.

Finally, a quick introductory comment on this business of completing the Copernican Revolution.  It is my thesis that, until Whitehead, philosophy has never really come close to completing the Copernican Revolution.  The vision of nature bequeathed us by Copernicus, Kepler, Galileo, Newton, et al. had, until the time of Whitehead, firmly resisted efforts to make it serve as a base with which an adequate account of human nature could be integrated.  Ironically, it was not until the Copernican Revolution had been deeply modified by the subsequent revolution generated by Planck, Einstein, et al. that the situation on the nature side of the equation became such that a meaningful integration was possible.  Whitehead, steeped in the mathematics of the new developments in physics, was the right man for the moment.  But did Whitehead go all the way, did Whitehead complete the Copernican Revolution?  Here my answer is no; there is still something left for us to finish.  Given the science of our day we are now within reach of another synthesis on the scale of that developed by Aristotle.  Whitehead has analyzed the nature component of the equation brilliantly but that achievement needs to be integrated with Heidegger’s and Sartre’s account of the structures of human consciousness if we are to have a complete categoreal scheme which will do justice to man as a part of nature.  The remainder of my paper will elaborate upon the points made in these introductory paragraphs.

 2. The Greek Background

This story begins, as do most of the stories told by philosophy, with Plato and Aristotle.  It is customary to think of Whitehead as a neo-Platonist.  Whitehead’s famous quip that “The safest general characterization of the European philosophical tradition is that it consists of a series of footnotes to Plato” (PR 39) reinforces this customary way of thinking.  Furthermore, it is certainly true that one finds constant admiring reference to Plato throughout Whitehead’s books and that there is more than a casual similarity between, for instance, key ideas in The Timaeus and Whitehead’s process metaphysics.  Along with this customary view that Whitehead is a neo-Platonist goes the almost complementary view that from a Whiteheadian perspective Aristotle is the enemy.  Again, there is certainly truth in the view, for, after all, Aristotle is the philosopher who developed the notion of substance, and from beginning to end Whitehead’s process metaphysics is based upon a repudiation of the notion of substance and the mode of thinking which that notion has fostered.

True and important as these customary understandings are, it is going to be my first thesis that insights of great importance are to be had by focusing upon the similarities between the thought and the general philosophical objectives of Whitehead and Aristotle.  It may indeed be helpful to read European philosophy as a series of footnotes to Plato, but it is no less true that Whitehead’s philosophical importance emerges with great clarity when his philosophy of organism is seen as one rather complex footnote to Aristotle.  This suggestion is based on a very obvious feature of Whitehead’s system, a feature that in itself is clearly understood by all students of Whitehead’s thought, but which has implications that are not explored very much at all in the secondary literature—this feature is the ontological principle.  Whitehead’s ontological principle is clearly a protest against the primacy in Plato’s thought of a realm of being, more real than the realm of becoming, which is the habitat of forms and the natural home of the reasoning part of soul.  “The ontological principle declares that every decision is referable to one or more actual entities, because in separation from actual entities there is nothing, merely nonentity . . . and by the ontological principle whatever things there are in any sense of ‘existence,’ are derived by abstraction from actual occasions” (PR 43, 73).  Whitehead explicitly identifies his ontological principle with “the general Aristotelian principle . . . that, apart from things that are actual, there is nothing—nothing either in fact or in efficacy” (PR 40).

Now for some reflections on the significance of the ontological principle as it relates Whitehead’s philosophical objectives to those of Aristotle.  Aristotle was a biologist who found himself floundering in a philosophical milieu created by philosophical mathematicians like Pythagoras, Parmenides, and Plato.  Plato had been terribly upset by the trial and martyrdom of Socrates, and philosophically upset by the inability of Socrates to justify the knowledge claims he made in the domain of ethics.  It seems plausible to me to reconstruct Plato’s intellectual moves after the death of Socrates as follows: as a mathematician Plato knew perfectly well how he justified knowledge claims in the domain of geometry—he appealed to the conceptually grasped properties of triangularity, not to the accidental properties of particular triangles; the seminal insight of Plato was that this sort of ground for justifying knowledge claims in geometry could be generalized into the domain of ethical and political theory; if triangularity is an intelligible structure, so then must be the objects of the knowing mind when it knows courage, justice, temperance, etc.; the realities, then, are these unchanging, eternal, intelligible structures; and what a happy coincidence all this is when Parmenides and Zeno have done such a brilliant job of establishing, via their various paradoxes, the impossibility of the reality of motion.

If by a “Copernican Revolution” in the generic sense we mean the emergence of a new intellectual perspective that (a) involves a radical reversal of perspective, (b) involves a new point of view that transforms in meaning and significance many of our ordinary experiences, and (c) involves the power to open up new investigations and new understandings of no small magnitude, then Aristotle’s rebellion against the vision of the Greek mathematicians is the greatest Copernican Revolution of them all.  Aristotle the biologist studied living things, organisms that are born, grow, decay, and die.  For him, these organisms, as revealed to the senses, are real if anything is real.  But he was faced with a philosophical challenge which had to be met before his scientific vision could be grounded, namely, the challenge of making motion, change, becoming, intelligible.  Those first books of The Physics are the exciting “Copernician” Aristotle—the elaboration of the categoreal scheme in terms of which reason can grasp motion, in terms of which the old Eleatic dilemmas about change can be broken.  Where the Eleatics had held that nothing comes into or passes out of existence because it cannot come either from what exists or what does not exist, Aristotle, agreeing that absolute non-existence cannot give rise to existence, has developed a categoreal scheme which not only allows him to say that everything arises from that which is both existent and nonexistent in some incidental way, it also allows him to make becoming intelligible, because whatever sort of becoming it is, it is going to involve a perfectly intelligible relationship between a particular sort of categoreally identifiable prior incompleteness and its corresponding full actual character.  This is the revolutionary Aristotle who creates categories for understanding nature and its processes that at the same time do justice to man as an integral part of that nature so understood.  The otherworldly orientation of Plato is nowhere more vividly present than when he talks of immortality and the soul—that which is distinctively human existed intact prior to being imprisoned in the body, and philosophy is but the preparation for that day when it will return to its natural abode.  How different is Aristotle’s discussion of immortality—for him a human being is the living, growing, moving, informed body, and in De Anima the best he can muster on behalf of immortality is the survival of an active principle which in its pure state is not affected by impressions, has no memories, and may very well not be individual.  No, for Aristotle the doctrine of substance and the other attendant categories is the vehicle for the revolt against the mathematicians, for the revolt that puts man back into nature while so understanding nature that its dynamic categories embrace the dynamic reality of human existence.

The purpose of this brief caricature of Greek philosophy has been simply to set the stage for the claim that the Copernican Revolution was a revolution of mathematicians and that its effect was to drive man out of nature and put him back in that same limbo where Plato left him—alien to nature, not part of nature.  The Copernican Revolution was without any doubt a major scientific achievement, but its completion demands someone to play the role to Copernicus et al. that Aristotle played to Plato.


3. E=MC2 and the Theory of Evolution  

How was it possible for Whitehead to succeed in laying the groundwork for completing the Copernican Revolution when Descartes, just as gifted, failed?  It was possible because Whitehead had the advantage of living in the twentieth century and could therefore draw upon two major developments which were unavailable to Descartes.  Speculative philosophy is the elaboration of categoreal schemes which mediate between, in the sense of mutually encompass, the developments of science on the one hand, and our most sophisticated perceptions of human reality on the other.  The particular two developments available to Whitehead and not to Descartes which were of pivotal importance for the completion of the Copernican Revolution came one of them from the side of physics and the other from the side of our perception of human reality.

(1) From the side of physics came E=MC2.  The twentieth century determined that matter and energy are equivalent, and brought the lesson home with appalling force by exploding atomic bombs.  Perhaps it is because our society has been so busy trying to assimilate the political implications of this development that it has been so slow to pursue its philosophical implications.  Ivor Leclerc has been one of the few philosophers to recognize and explore this development; he pointed out these relationships in his Presidential Address to the Metaphysical Society of America (subsequently published in The Review of Metaphysics, vol. XXXV, no. 1 [September, 1981]: 3–25).  The point for present purposes is that Descartes was stuck with trying to give a philosophical analysis of matter as conceived in the seventeenth century.  Since energy was separate from matter in seventeenth-century understanding, Descartes was analyzing inert, static, material, spatialized stuff from which energy was excluded and to which mind had to be totally external, to which mind could only be related externally as a mirror is related to the objects which it reflects.  Descartes was saddled with a conception of nature obviously inadequate for the inclusion of mind, and the result was that his dualistic doctrine of two separate substances, material and mental, unceremoniously threw mind out of nature and left philosophy with the hopeless task of trying to figure out how a mind not of nature could ever really come to know nature.  Leclerc has emphasized that Descartes’ philosophizing upon the seventeenth-century scientific revolution amounts to a return to neo-Platonism, to the idea that the real is devoid of change and becoming.  Whitehead, in effect, mounts a new Aristotelian revolt against the Platonic elements in seventeenth-century philosophy, and does so by insisting, as did Aristotle, that what is real intrinsically involves motion, change, becoming.  Whitehead can do this because of E=MC2.

(2) From the side of our understanding of human reality came the impact of Darwin and the Theory of Evolution.  Few philosophers have taken evolution seriously—the exception is Teilhard de Chardin, the “Poet of Evolution,” who claimed in The Phenomenon of Man that from that time forward no one could philosophize successfully without taking evolution seriously.  Whitehead is one of those philosophers who has taken evolution very seriously, perhaps even more seriously than Teilhard himself.

E=MC2 plus evolution—this is the combination that allows Whitehead to lay the foundation for the completion of the Copernican Revolution.  It is not possible to describe Whitehead’s entire categoreal scheme here; I shall simply use the perspective created by the “E=MC2 plus evolution” analysis to exhibit just a few things about Whitehead’s key metaphy-sical concept, the notion of an actual entity.  In the process I wish to vent my frustration with the term “panpsychism,” which I judge to be the single most confusing, misleading term to be associated with Whitehead’s philosophy.

I turn now to the metaphysical consequen-ces of the convergence of E=MC2 and evolution.  In the context of twentieth-century science, the fundamental reality which physics and chemistry are probing would not seem to be describable in the language of inert, material stuff; rather, science seems to be probing toward discrete, quantum factors that are energetic, vibratory, dynamic.  At the same time, evolution is firmly established in twentieth-century consciousness, the Religious Right notwithstanding.  Whitehead’s fundamen-tal ontological intuition is located at the intersection of these modern developments.

The thought experiment which these considerations invite us to undertake is encapsuled in Whitehead’s phrase, “. . . if we descend the scale of organic being” (PR 176).  In the paragraphs surrounding this phrase Whitehead is pressing his attack against Hume and arguing that whereas Hume assumes that perception in the mode of presentational immediacy (intellectual, visual experience) is presupposed by perception in the mode of causal efficacy (bodily, feeling experience), the facts of our experience show the dependency to be just the reverse of what Hume’s argument requires.  The move down “the scale of organic being” is made to establish this point against Hume, but the descent has far wider metaphysical implications.  As we move down the scale,

It does not seem to be the sense of causal awareness that the lower living things lack, so much as variety of sense-presentation, and then vivid distinctness of presentational immediacy.  But animals, and even vegetables, in low forms of organism exhibit modes of behaviour directed towards self-preservation.  There is every indication of a vague feeling of causal relationship with the external world, of some intensity, vaguely defined as to quality, and with some vague definition as to locality.  A jellyfish advances and withdraws, and in so doing exhibits some perception of causal relationship with the world beyond itself; a plant grows downwards to the damp earth, and upwards towards the light.  There is thus some direct reason for attributing dim, slow feelings of causal nexus, although we have no reason for any ascription of the definite percepts in the mode of presentational immediacy. (PR 176–77)

As with many of Whitehead’s sallies against Hume, Whitehead is contrasting the unreality of Hume’s dogmas with the grounding in immediate experience of Whitehead’s own categoreal commitments.  (“By an ironic development in the history of thought, Locke’s successors, who arrogated to themselves the title of ‘empiricists,’ have been chiefly employed in explaining away the obvious facts of experience . . .”—PR 145.)
We need one more passage before us to get the full flavor of Whitehead’s procedure in grounding his categoreal scheme on the notion of an actual entity.  This will be a two sentence passage, the first of which can be interpreted as encouraging “panpsychism” talk and the sense that Whitehead is deeply mired in a traditional idealist position while the second sentence serves to take it all back and give specific guidance in interpreting Whitehead’s invitation to “descend the scale of organic being.”

“In describing the capacities, realized or unrealized, of an actual occasion, we have, with Locke, tacitly taken human experience as an example upon which to found the generalized description required for metaphysics” (PR 112).  Now that sounds like panpsychism talk if anything does! Charles Hartshorne is certainly the most distinguished and widely-known of those who comment on Whitehead and write in a Whiteheadian mode, and Hartshorne more than anyone has generated the tendency to use panpsychism talk when discussing his own and Whitehead’s writings.  Certainly the above sentence lends itself in support of such a reading.  But there is a clear difference on this issue between the positions of Whitehead and Hartshorne, a difference that has been remarked upon by others; see, for example, page 1 of R. J. Connelly’s 1981 study (University Press of America) Whitehead vs. Hartshorne: Basic Metaphysical Issues—“Hartshorne’s more idealistic approach in his own metaphysics and in his commentaries on Whitehead offers a significant contrast with Whitehead’s realism.”

But the second sentence is much less “idealistic” and also provides a clue to what it means to Whitehead when he suggests that we “descend the scale of organic being.”  “But when we turn to the lower organisms we have first to determine which among such capacities fade from realization into irrelevance, that is to say, by comparison with human experience which is our standard” (PR 112).  The key point here is that what quickly fades into irrelevance as we “descend the scale” is everything even remotely suggestive of “psyche,” of ordinary human functioning.  As Whitehead indicates in the long passage above quoted from PR 176–77, jellyfish does not exhibit the traits we associate with consciousness and mentality, but it does exhibit a vague awareness of the environment surrounding it.  Moving down the scale to the inorganic, metal filings respond to the presence in their environment of a magnet and the theory of gravitation incorporated into modern scientific understanding assures us that even moon and tides, even cosmic dust, exhibit “behavior” predicated upon some form of “taking into account” other factors in the environment.  “Behavior” and “taking into account” have to be put in quotes to indicate that they are not to be given the same interpretation they receive in the context of human experience—this is Whitehead’s practice when he writes, for example:  “But the philosophy of organism attributes ‘feeling’ throughout the actual world” (PR 177).  “Feeling” and “prehension” are technical terms for Whitehead.  In their generalized usage they are drained of all the mentalistic associations which cluster around the term “psyche.”  (“The word perceive is, in our common usage, shot through and through with the notion of cognitive apprehension.  So is the word apprehension, even with the adjective cognitive omitted.  I will use the word prehension for uncognitive apprehension: by this I mean apprehension which may or may not be cognitive”—SMW 101; see also AI 300.)  With these technical terms, “prehension” and “feeling,” Whitehead is creating a way of talking about that “taking into account of factors in the environment” which persists not only when we “descend the scale of organic being,” but also when science probes the inorganic—“The dominance of the scalar physical quantity, inertia, in the Newtonian physics obscured the recognition of the truth that all fundamental physical quantities are vector and not scalar” (PR 177).

To summarize: Descending “the scale of organic being” is an exercise during which we peel off layer after layer of human “capacities,” during which we watch the distinctively human, the psychical, “fade from realization into irrelevance.” What seems doggedly to persist is “taking into account”- this feature of those things we observe on the trip down the scale is present in jellyfish, amoebae, viruses, and yes, in iron filings, the tides of the sea, and interstellar dust. Darwinian evolution, augmented by contemporary biochemical analysis of genetic materials, assures us that the organic domain arose out of the primordial ooze that constituted the state of the inorganic billions of years ago. Whitehead’s speculative philosophy is an attempt to capture the significance of that empirical record: the metaphysical description of an actual entity of the simplest type is meant to embody both the barest form of “taking into account” plus the vibratory, energetic character of the physical reality described by modern physics. The trick is to describe those most primitive actual entities so that (a) the laws of physics are an exemplification of their primitive form of “taking into account,” and (b) in their stark simplicity they yet contain the potentiality of the sort of progressive complexification which corresponds to the increasingly sophisticated forms of “taking into account” which we find as we ascend back up the scale of organic being. This is what it means for a philosopher to take evolution seriously. Whitehead’s philosophy of the actual entity puts mind back in nature, breaks the mirror imagery which arises from the Cartesian bifurcation, and comes very close to completing the Copernican Revolution by pointing the way toward a categoreal scheme that can do justice to man as a part of nature.


4. Going Beyond Whitehead  

But, I have implied, Whitehead did not quite finish the job, did not quite complete the Copernican Revolution.  In what ways did he fall short?  How might his shortcomings be overcome?  These are the questions I will consider in the remainder of this essay.  In outline form here are the conclusions upon which I shall subsequently elaborate:  (1) Whitehead falls short because, unlike Nietzsche, he failed to recognize that the Copernican Revolution has indeed irrevocably announced the Death of God; (2) in particular, Whitehead failed to see that Nietzsche’s observations concerning “perspective,” when applied to God in the context of relativity theory, render absurd Whitehead’s own efforts to paint the portrait of deity; (3) but, as the British say, “Not to worry,” for, unlike Whitehead, we have the philoso-phizing of Heidegger and Tillich before us, and their investigations into Being Itself, into the Ground of Being, provide a hint as to how we can understand Whitehead’s categoreal scheme so as to preserve a religious understanding of reality, so as to provide a grasp of what Tillich refers to as “the God above God”; (4) and finally, we can see that while Whitehead wrote before the dissemination of Sartre’s technical analysis of the structures of human consciousness, nevertheless Whitehead’s elaboration of the categoreal structures of actual occasions permits the absorption of much that is important in Sartre’s understanding while it avoids the unwelcome consequence of an inevitable warfare between pour soi and The Other.

(1) The Copernican Revolution clearly announced the death of Aristotle’s God.  In Aristotelian physics, rest is the natural state of matter, so if matter is in motion something has generated that motion and continues to sustain it.  Given this Aristotelian analysis of motion, the awesomely regular motion of the outer heavens and the complex but predictable motions of the planets, moon, and sun need a cause.  That cause is the Unmoved Mover, luring the heavenly spheres into perfect circular motion in imitation of its own divine perfection.  An incredibly ingenious scheme that links heaven and earth, man and nature!  St. Thomas wove the threads of Christianity (which, as Whitehead put it, was a religion badly in need of a metaphysics, as opposed to Buddhism, a metaphysics generating a religion-RM 39–40) into that categoreal scheme to create one of the most impressive intellectual triumphs the world has ever known.

Galileo, even more than Copernicus, undermined the foundation upon which the entire Aristotelian/Thomistic synthesis rested.  Copernicus had sought mathematical simplicity in our understanding of the irregular paths of the planets, sun, and moon, and his suggestion of putting the sun at the center and letting the earth move generated in the popular imagination that abrupt reversal of perspective which justifies naming the whole host of events that constituted the Copernican Revolution after him.  But Galileo’s suggestion that we imagine a world in which motion is a natural state was (when it was decided that this imaginary world was really our world) the real proclamation of the Death of God.  Applied to the world close at hand, Galileo’s suggestion made wondrous sense out of the behavior of falling bodies, military projectiles, and in general anything that accelerates.  But applied to the heavenly bodies, the hypothesis that motion is a natural state meant that there was no longer a need for an Unmoved Mover and a collection of spirits or intelligences to account for the motion of the stars and planets, nor was there a need to bifurcate the world between the sublunar realm (made up of physical elements moved by physical forces) and a heavenly realm (made up of ethereal entities moving as a result of spiritual agencies imitating divine perfection).  When the Aristotelian understanding of the nature and motion of the heavenly realm collapsed back into a unity with the new understanding of terrestrial matter and its motion, Aristotle’s God was, if not dead, left with little to do except collect unemployment insurance!

Thomas Hobbes is the early modern philosopher who grasped the significance of this chain of events with admirable clarity.  Hobbes made a valiant effort to complete the Copernican Revolution right at its beginning, using only the materials of the new science and not falling back on an outmoded notion of deity.  He failed because he had access to neither E=MC2 nor evolution; using the notions of physical reality available to him, he could not both exhibit man as a part of nature and do justice to our direct experience of what it is to be human.  Descartes began the practice of using God to stave off collapse of the philosophical system in the face of the inability to articulate an adequate account of human reality using just the materials of the new science.  Having separated man from nature under the pressure of doing justice to what it is to be human, Descartes pays the price of having to fall back on God, qua nondeceiver, to underwrite the account of a relationship between man and nature, no matter how artificial and foreign to our experience the description of that relationship might be.  Likewise, when everything threatens to fall apart, Leibniz falls back on God and His preestablished harmony to hold man and nature in relation one to the other.  In the post-Copernican world God succeeds in finding employment once again; instead of making the great wheels turn, however, God has become the great bridger of gaps, the device for holding man and nature together in the face of the failure of philosophy to be able to do justice to man as a part of nature.

Whitehead finally succeeds in the philosophical task and what happens?  As a true British liberal in the tradition that culminated in the Labor Party, he cannot accept unemployment as a policy, even at the level of deity!  Parsonage-born and raised, Whitehead, particularly in the context of giving his Gifford Lectures (which are supposed to focus on Natural Religion), directs his attention to the task of finding something for God to do in the context of the philosophy of organism.  In rummaging around in the system, Whitehead turns up a few odd jobs for God—a metaphysical WPA program.  I suppose that is all right on a temporary basis—after all, railroads kept firemen on the job long after engines went diesel.  It is now getting to be time, however, to recognize that it is not only possible, but philosophically desirable, to philosophize in the Whiteheadian mode without falling back on the notion of God.

It is time to abandon the unemployment metaphor.  I believe it has been valuable as a way of showing how the context for thinking about God changed after the Copernican Revolution and how it is that by doing justice to man as a part of nature Whitehead’s categoreal scheme no longer needs deity.  I do not wish to risk, however, the possibility that my light-handed treatment of deity would obscure my deep sympathy with the profoundly religious character of Whitehead’s thought.  In (3) below I will be at pains to argue for a strongly religious (though a-theistic) interpretation of reality.  At the moment I am simply suggesting the broad context within which a presentation of Whitehead without God makes sense in the light of the history of categoreal schemes.  Else-where I have argued not only that the jobs assigned to God in Whitehead’s scheme can readily be done by other categoreal factors present in the scheme, but that the presence of God actually results in metaphysical incoher-ence.3  I will not repeat those arguments here, but before turning to the question of religious intuition I do wish to follow two lines of thought suggested by Nietzsche’s pronouncement that God is dead.

(2) Nietzsche is one of the major prophets of his time, signaling to us that, though well under way, the Copernican Revolution had not yet been completed.  As is well recognized, Nietzsche’s dramatic pronouncement, “God is dead,” is not a historical comment on the rise and fall of a divine being!  Rather, in having nothing to do with a God and everything to do with the possibility of human belief, Nietzsche’s statement affirms both the deep impact of the Copernican Revolution and its fundamental incompleteness: its deep impact in that it has eroded the grounds on which the human ability to believe in a God were based; its fundamental incompleteness in that the modern world has not yet learned how to exist in terms of that which it has come to know.  I have two observations to make which are suggested to me by Nietzsche’s pronouncement.

(a) During his tangled, complex, subtle, and indirect reflections, Nietzsche turns more than once to a consideration of the notion of perspective.  The claim that there is a God entails that there can be a knowing, a “seeing,” that is without perspective, that is from everywhere, but which is consequently, Nietzsche would say, from nowhere.  It is not the details of Nietzsche’s observations which concern me.  Rather, Nietzsche’s observations are a warning of a problem associated with any attempt to conceive of a deity which, like Whitehead’s God, is supposed to prehend each and every last actual entity which mushrooms forth in the actual world—namely, the problem of perspective.  In our postrelativity era, this question of cosmic perspective becomes particularly acute.  Relativity theory, and Nietzsche, should make us distinctly uneasy in regard to this business of an Olympian perspective which would generate an absolute frame of reference ordering all frames from its own perspective.  Nietzsche and relativity theorists warn of the problems involved in postulating an all-prehending being like Whitehead’s God, and it is somewhat ironic that Whitehead, the sophisticated mathematician and philosopher of science, should have been oblivious to this line of criticism, a line of criticism not original with me but which goes back at least as far as John T. Wilcox’s 1961 article, “A Question from Physics for Certain Theists” (Journal of Religion, vol. 41 [1961]: 293–300).

(b) A second observation suggested by Nietzsche’s pronouncement concerns what I shall call the post-Holocaust question.  The Holocaust served to reaffirm the faith of some Jewish religious thinkers, but others, such as Richard Rubinstein of Florida State University, author of After Auschwitz, found it impossible to think theologically in the wake of the Holocaust.  I wish to suggest that Whitehead’s notion of God is extremely vulnerable when faced with the sort of experience that was the Holocaust.

Part of Nietzsche’s point in affirming the Death of God was to deny that there was, or ever had been, an absolute power center for the universe, a center determinative of value, of meaning and influencing either directly or indirectly the history and destiny of the world.  Whitehead is deeply sensitive to the problem of evil and articulates a vision of a God that is finite, limited, and not responsible for evil.  Whitehead’s God does not have the power to mold the history of the world by fiat; rather, Whitehead’s God offers a lure to each emerging actual entity, a lure which, if accepted and followed, would result in the best world possible under the circumstances.  Entities are free, however, to ignore the lure from God; hence God is not responsible for the evil which results when His lures are ignored.

But may it not be that this mechanism for dealing with evil, for getting God off the hook in view of the obvious presence of evil in the world about us, has solved the problem at one level but created difficulties at another level?  I think it has.  Consider two possible worlds.  The first world is Whitehead’s world with Whitehead’s God.  To a certain extent we are back in that situation which Nietzsche attacked—we have a center of value and meaning in God and to a limited extent God has the power to shape the history and destiny of the world through the artful exploitation of His power to lure actual entities into accepting patterns of definiteness in their process of becoming which will correspond with the aim He has as He seeks to maximize the intensity and harmony of His own experience, which is dependent upon the harmony and beauty of the world He prehends.  Now imagine a second world, a Whiteheadian world, but without God.  Each individual actual entity seeks to promote its own integrity of feeling, seeks width of effective contrast within its own satisfaction, just as did God in the first world.  Again, just as God in the first possible world seeks to introduce order, harmony, and productive novelty of feeling (zest) into the world, and hence into His own feeling, so in this second possible world each individual actual entity seeks to maximize the quality of its own experience, and of future experiences, by molding and shaping the character of the world around it through its own decisions.

The significant difference between these two possible worlds is that whereas in both there are myriad diverse centers for concrete, world-shaping decision making, in one, the first, there is a coordinating center that brings its all-knowing, all-inclusive perspective to bear at the birth of each of the temporal actual entities, lovingly persuading each of these myriad entities to direct its own self-making process in that manner which would bring about the greatest satisfaction for the whole.  God (in this first possible world) sees all the possibilities for harmonious development available for the infinite future of the universe—like Plato’s Demiurgos He lures the world toward the highest coordination of values open to it.  In the second possible world, however, there is no nontemporal, all-knowing being with a table of value priorities all worked out for the whole.  There are myriad centers of value perception each struggling toward that maximum satisfaction that it can perceive from its limited perspective.  The image that fits this second world is one of slow growth from the bottom, one of groping toward larger frames of order and meaning, one of the gradual emergence of the ability to hold wider and wider ranges of possibilities under positive contrast.

Does the history of our actual world more closely resemble what one would expect the history of the first possible world to be like, or what one would expect the history of the second possible world to be like?  There can be nothing here of the nature of proof.  But as I play with these possible worlds and consider the record of the development of human civilizations, with all their gropings, false starts, conflicts, atavistic backslidings—when I consider that history I find that my actual world resembles what I would expect from the second possible world, not the first.  Were I living in the first possible world I would find the senseless brutality of the Holocaust incongruent with the structures of my universe—it is inconceivable that a God drawn along the Whiteheadian lines, with a total grasp of the possibilities unfolding before the progressive advance into chaos and with a direct pipeline to the “ear” and “conscience” of each and every emerging actual entity, could not have found for the world a way around such unspeakable suffering.  If He was powerless to mitigate the effects of a disaster of such magnitude, then He is indeed powerless.  Whitehead’s efforts to protect God from responsibility for evil lead to the conclusion, given the magnitude of the evil that was the Holocaust, that God is helpless, is unable to affect the destiny of the world, is totally unable to deflect the world from the path of onrushing evil, is a fifth wheel.

We are dealing here with matters too serious and too complex to be resolved in so brief a comment, but when these considerations of applicability are put in tandem with my previously cited arguments elsewhere challenging the internal coherence of the Whiteheadian scheme with God, we have both empirical and rational arguments militating against the soundness of the Whiteheadian concept of God.  Nietzsche will have his say when it comes to power centers and perspectiveless perspectives.

(3) Now, perhaps somewhat unexpectedly, I am going to argue that a Whiteheadian cosmology without God is still a cosmology capable of preserving a religious understanding of reality on Whitehead’s own terms.  The relevant text is Section II of Chapter Two of Religion in the Making.  The point of this Section, titled “The Description of Religious Experience,” is that “. . . this religious experience does not include any direct intuition of a definite person, or individual.”  Rather, religious experience is a revelation of “a character of permanent rightness . . . inherent in the nature of things, . . . a revelation of character, apprehended as we apprehend the characters of our friends” (RM 50).  Dogma, theological elaboration, is the effort to particularize and personalize this revelation of a bare character of permanent rightness inherent in the nature of things by elaborating a scheme of ideas, linked to one’s fundamental metaphysical description, which embodies that revelation in concrete imagery which can make immediate contact with human hopes and aspirations.  In the vast majority of cases this conceptual elaboration takes the form, as it does in Whitehead, of postulating a special divine being, which is a distinct being over against the many beings that make up the world and which, in its workings, justifies our sense that there is such a character of permanent rightness inherent in things.

But there is an alternate way of grounding that religious experience of a character of permanent rightness inherent in the nature of things.  Heidegger undertook to explore Being qua Being and although he himself ended up not pursuing the possible religious implications of his program, Tillich developed those implications, concluding that God is not a being over against other beings, but the Ground of Being, the “God above God.”  My suggestion is that it is open to Whiteheadians to make a Tillich-like move.  That is, in the categoreal scheme of Process and Reality Being is described in such a way that “Being Itself” can be seen as the ground for our experience of “a character of permanent rightness . . . inherent in the nature of things.”  Translated into the language of Process and Reality, each actual entity exhibits, as a categoreal condition of its existence, a striving toward a harmonious appropriation of the elements bequeathed it by its actual world.  In this sense final causation is an integral part of the concrescence of each actual entity.  Given the second of the two possible worlds described in the previous section, reality is composed of myriad centers of value apprehension, each one seeking that form and level of perfection open to it.  In such a world there is partiality, limited vision, conflict, and waste as well as a persistent movement up from a lower level of fragmented coordination toward larger frames of order, meaning, and value.4  Progress is painfully slow, and there is woeful backsliding, but (and here is the point) our own human struggles, our own striving after beauty and intensity of satisfaction in our ordinary experience, is intuited as being in harmony with, congruent with, a sophisticated development of, the ultimate character exhibited by reality all up and down the scale of being.  Our experience of a character of permanent rightness inherent in the nature of things is grounded in the categoreal conditions framing all existence, governing the concrescence of all actual entities.  At certain moments the partiality of vision, the conflict, and the waste can be so overwhelming that experience takes on shades of the demonic, but the Whiteheadian existential stance without God is ultimately religious, buoyant, optimistic.

(4) Finally, relating Whitehead’s categoreal scheme to the ontological reflections of the Sartre of Being and Nothingness might well constitute one of the final steps in the completion of the Copernican Revolution.  Sartre, like Nietzsche, is a voice from the wilderness that in its anguished existential wail testifies to the incompleteness of the Copernican Revolution.  By this I mean that Sartre is acutely aware that however brilliant the scientific achievements of Copernicus, Galileo, Newton, et al. are, neither they nor their successors in the field of philosophy have succeeded in completing the revolution they initiated, and this because there has not yet emerged an account of man which does justice to human nature and at the same time meets the demand that man be so understood that he can be viewed as a part of nature. Sartre (like most existentialists) sees the problem, despairs of a solution, throws up his hands and says: the devil take science and nature, I will articulate the structures of human being even if there appears to be no way to integrate that articulation into the scientific scheme for understanding nature.  Sartre’s attitude was: if what I write does not fit well with science, so much the worse for science!  In exhibiting that attitude he was joining hands with such eminent predecessors as Wordsworth and Bergson.  But the bitter pill has to be swallowed—no matter how brilliant the articulation, our age will dismiss it as poetry, will put Sartre on the same literary shelf with Wordsworth, if the articulation cannot be squared with the scientific perspective.  Whitehead was acknowledging this fact of contemporary life when he wrote: “I am also greatly indebted to Bergson, William James, and John Dewey.  One of my preoccupations has been to rescue their type of thought from the charge of anti-intellectualism, which rightly or wrongly has been associated with it” (PR xii).

I only wish to indicate a single point of contact between the writings of Sartre and the categoreal scheme of Whitehead, but this one point of contact is rich enough to generate a book-length comparative study, I do believe.  Whitehead makes reference several times to Locke’s phrase, a phrase with its roots in Plato, that time is a perpetual perishing.  In Whitehead’s scheme of things this phrase draws attention to the fact that each actual entity enjoys its instant of aesthetic synthesis and then perishes.  William Ernest Hocking quotes Whitehead: “Reality is becoming; it is passing before one remark too obvious to make. . . . You can’t catch a moment by the scruff of the neck—it’s gone, you know.”5 For Whitehead a person is a temporal society of many actual entities in which each actual entity inherits structures of experience from its immediate past and passes them on, with or without extensive modification as the case may be, to the subsequent member of the society.  Each pattern of definiteness affirmed at a given instant must be affirmed, modified, or rejected immediately by the subsequent entity in the society.  There is no enduring substance in Whitehead’s scheme—process is reality, to paraphrase the title of the magnum opus.

In his discussion of the existential-ontological structure of death in Being and Time, Section 50, Heidegger observes that “Dasein is essentially disclosed to itself . . . as ahead-of-itself.”  Again, “ahead-of-itself-Being-already-in [the world].”  In my understanding, these phrases capture perfectly the “no-thingly” character of Sartre’s pour soi, of consciousness as it is placed in stark contrast to en soi, thingliness, in his Being and Nothingness.  Even though they come to quite different conclusions about the structures of certain sorts of experience (death being a good example), Heidegger and Sartre between them travel about as far as modern thought has gone in the attempt to do justice to the structures of human existence.  Any effort to do justice to man as a part of nature which cannot claim to be isomorphic in some large part with the Heideggerian/Sartrean analyses of the structures of human consciousness is probably going to be less than satisfactory as a philosophical attempt to complete the Copernican Revolution.

Whitehead has the framework for understanding the structures of human existence in such a way that it is possible to see man as a part of nature, but he engages in a minimum amount of close existential analysis.  Heidegger and Sartre have hundreds and hundreds of pages of close existential analysis, but they provide no way of understanding how human reality can be grasped as an integral part of nature as portrayed by scientific analysis.  My suggestion is that the perpetually perishing character of Whitehead’s reality is such that the phenomenological and existential analyses from the continent can slip right inside Whitehead’s categoreal scheme as easily as a hand slips inside its favorite glove.  A quick consideration of the notion of freedom will illustrate the point.

Sartre’s concept of freedom (and responsibility) is about as radical as one could imagine.  For Sartre I am in some sense a professor, but in virtue of my character as a consciousness I cannot be a professor the way an inkwell is an inkwell or my redheaded friend is redheaded—I am a professor in the mode of “not being what I am and being what I am not.”  Qua consciousness, I exist out ahead of myself; in every instant I am burdened with the awful freedom of choosing to reaffirm, modify, or repudiate what I have been.  And when I so choose, I am no longer that choice, but am “ahead-of-myself-being,” am living again the responsibility of yet further free choice.  This Sartrean language adapts beautifully to the perpetually perishing character of Whiteheadian actual entities.  Each actual entity finds itself given restraints by its past, but as in Sartre, each actual entity appropriates its past in the freedom of its own concrescence and gives that past forward impetus, direction, value, and meaning in its own free decision.  To live in Whitehead’s world, as in Sartre’s, is to live with what Peter Bertocci has referred to as “creative insecurity”; is to live with uncertainty, responsibility, angst; is to live with the possibility of bad faith as well as the possibility of authenticity.  Whitehead did little to investigate these existential possibilities, but his categoreal scheme stands ready to absorb the Sartrean insights with this important difference—the categoreal structures of actual entities are such that the bleak, pessimistic conclusions of Sartre concerning the eternal conflict between any one consciousness and “The Other” need not be a feature of a Whiteheadian existential analysis.  Rather, Whitehead’s account of the relationships between actual entities enables him to appropriate the modifications in Sartre’s doctrine proposed by such thinkers as Levinas, modifications which emphasize the possibilities for cooperation between selves, which emphasize not strife with “The Other” but the possibilities for joint action open to “The We.”

Whitehead failed to complete the Copernican Revolution.  But the end is in sight.  A neo-Whiteheadian naturalism, incorporating the existential insights of Heidegger, Sartre, et al., will be able to do justice to man as a part of our twentieth-century vision of nature, and at that moment philosophy will know a wholeness that it has not enjoyed since Aristotle developed a categoreal scheme which resolved both the scientific and philosophical problems involved in humanizing the mathematical vision of his Greek predecessors.  But our achievement will be as temporary as Aristotle’s for science even now is approaching its next major Copernican Revolution.  Reality is process, categoreal schemes are of fleeting relevance, and philosophy is the ongoing adventure of ideas.



1Alfred North Whitehead, Process and Reality, p. xi. Originally published in 1929 by Macmillan and Cambridge University Press, Process and Reality was reissued in 1978 in a Corrected Edition by Free Press.  All page references are to this Corrected Edition.  Henceforth this book will be referred to as PR and page references will be included in the text.  Three other works by Whitehead will be referred to in the same way: Science and the Modern World (SMW), Religion in the Making (RM), and Adventures of Ideas (AI).  All appear in several editions; my references to AI and SMW are to the Macmillan hardback editions, and references to RM are to the Cambridge hardback edition.

2 Adventures of Ideas and Religion in the Making.

3 “Whitehead Without God,” in Process Philosophy and Christian Thought, edited by Delwin Brown, Ralph E. James, Jr., and Gene Reeves (Indianapolis and New York: The Bobbs-Merrill Co., 1971) and a series of debate articles with John Cobb: “The ‘Whitehead Without God’ Debate: The Rejoinder,” Process Studies, vol. 1, no. 2 (Summer 1971); “Regional Inclusion and the Extensive Continuum,” Process Studies, vol. 2, no. 4 (Winter 1972); and “Regional Inclusion and Psychological Physiology,” Process Studies, vol. 3, no. 1 (Spring 1973).

4 See Whitehead’s The Function of Reason (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1929) passim for general discussions of evolution, entropy, etc.

5 William Ernest Hocking, “Whitehead as I Knew Him,” in Alfred North Whitehead: Essays on His Philosophy, ed. George L. Kline (New York: Prentice-Hall, 1963), p. 8. I gratefully acknowledge many helpful suggestions made by Professor Kline as I was preparing the final draft of this paper.

Posted April 15, 2007


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